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Optimizing awnings

A look under the hood of PAMA’s Energy Savings Calculator

Markets | February 1, 2022 | By: Tim Goral

Photo: © Inigo Calles,

Last November the Professional Awning Manufacturers Association (PAMA), a division of the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) introduced a web-based tool that calculates the energy savings for residential and commercial awning products. 

The new Energy Savings Calculator app was designed as an IFAI member benefit to allow users to input a range of awning specifications and obtain the total dollars in energy savings possible when incorporating awning products. 

The app was designed by consultant Christopher Gronbeck of Seattle-based Sustainable Designs. Gronbeck has been working on sustainable energy and environment projects since 1991, initially for nonprofit organizations for seven years and as an independent consultant since 1998. “My goal is to empower people to make good design decisions when it comes to buildings and energy,” he says. 

The Energy Cost Calculator incorporates several web apps that Gronbeck has developed over the years to analyze such factors as sun angle and position, light penetration, awning analysis, window heat gain, climate data and more. 

Dual purpose

The app serves two purposes, says Gronbeck. “If you have a design in mind, it can help you figure out the energy and cost-benefit—or the energy and cost impact—of adding the awning or whatever shading device you are proposing.” 

The analysis might show that a design hits all the marks and can save hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. This design makes sense, he says.

On the other hand it might show you that in your particular climate or with your planned window orientation or awning design, it doesn’t make sense.

While the tool is good for analyzing a current awning design’s impact on a client’s energy costs, it’s also a useful design tool to help optimize a proposed design. The user can input information on the design and then tweak it. What impact will it have on costs if the awning was deeper or had sides? What if it was retractable in the summer or winter?

Simple fixes

Gronbeck says there’s a big difference between an awning that is designed well and one that is not. He has seen so many awning installations that he knows, often just by looking, which ones are not designed right. 

“I see a lot of buildings with awnings and I shake my head that someone went to all the expense to put an awning on a building and it is wrong. There wasn’t much thought put into it,” he says. “But if they just put a little time into getting it right, it can have a huge environmental impact on the building. Getting the windows and shading right is probably the biggest environmental impact you can have with the least effort over the entire life of the building.”

It often doesn’t take much to improve them and optimize their efficiency. “A lot of the rules of thumb that are out there are just slightly wrong and getting them a little bit more optimized is really worth the time,” he says. “With this tool, you can spend 30 minutes and maybe improve your design by 20 percent. Now multiply that 20 percent energy savings by the 50-year life of a building. Those little design decisions you make are really important.”

Easy to use

Using the Energy Savings Calculator is as easy as entering some data. Users go to the webpage to input information. After logging in they find specifications and results columns. Under the specifications column, they are prompted to provide inputs into four cards: location, window, shading, and cooling and heating. Users go through a step-by-step process to put information into accordion fields. As users complete each step, they get a green checkmark alerting them to move on to the next step. The app also features information icons that guide users to input the correct information. And, because it’s web-based, users can see how they can optimize energy savings in real-time, no matter where they are. 

Under the hood

Gronbeck outlined how users would interact with the tool and how it uses that information.

Users first select their city, which sets the latitude and longitude. This helps calculate sun angles and peak sun days.

The tool then wants to know all about the geometry of the window. How big is the window and what kind of glass is in it? Which compass direction does it face? 

Next are the details of the window treatment or covering you have or are planning. If it’s an awning, how high is it above the window? How big is it? Does it have sides? Fabric considerations are important too if an awning is to be made of a material that is more translucent to the sun. 

Fabric makes a difference in many ways as far as durability and cost, but also in how information is used in the
Energy Savings Calculator. Both the material and the weave are going to determine how much sunlight gets through. This information is usually available from manufacturers.

After the awning design, users need to input the kind of heating and cooling system they have and how much they pay for energy. “Say I have an awning along with an air conditioner in the summer,” Gronbeck says. “It runs on electricity and I pay 15 cents a kilowatt-hour. In the winter I have a gas furnace. I pay X dollars per thousand cubic feet.”

With that information, the tool analyzes energy costs for every hour of the day, every few days, for the entire year. 

“The Energy Savings Calculator analyzes winter and summer separately. If you are going to shade a window in the summer, that’s great—you’re cutting down on air conditioning expenses,” he says. “But if you’re shading a window where the solar gain would otherwise be beneficial, you’re blocking it and you are putting more of an energy burden on your heating system. And unless it is retractable, there can be some detriment to having an awning or window covering when you’re in a cold climate and you are blocking beneficial winter sun.”

Fortunately, he says, the United States is in a temperate latitude where the sun is higher in the summer and lower in the winter, so a correctly positioned shading device or any kind of overhang will let in more winter sun and block more summer sun. 

“Finding that exact balance is an important part of the design process,” Gronbeck says. “But there’s always those shoulder months to consider. Although June 21 is the beginning of summer on the calendar, it’s not the beginning of summer thermally.”

During the shoulder months, temperatures can vary widely, leading to frequent changes between heating and cooling systems each day or even hourly.

“The Energy Savings Calculator can help people home in on the optimum geometry for any kind of window shading device,” Gronbeck says.

As with any new app, there will be improvements and enhancements. The PAMA Board encourages its members to log into the website at any time to use it and send in their feedback. You can find the app on the PAMA website under the Resources tab at 

Tim Goral is senior editor of Specialty Fabrics Review.

SIDEBAR: Rave reviews

The app is very easy to use, and I was able to input the information in less than 5 minutes. 

Tim Kellogg, President of Capital City Awning and PAMA Chair

This was a labor of love and a lot of hard work went into the development of this app.  

Barry Adams, Owner of Peachtree Awnings/Tennessee Awnings and PAMA’s Past Chair

I recently had an opportunity to use the Energy Savings Calculator for a large recover project (75 recovers) for a retirement community. The on-site management was on board prior; however, the upper management/board of directors was not. With the advantage of discussing the cost savings of keeping the awnings and recovering them versus removing all of them, I was able to convince the upper management to proceed on the project. 

James Dillport, General manager, Maple Leaf Awning and Canvas and PAMA Board member

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